A number of episodes referred to a practice of the administration having one day each year on which they accepted meetings with people or groups who would not normally receive an audience with high-level White House staffers, referring to the event as "Big Block of Cheese Day". The name came from the fact that President Andrew Jackson had a large wheel of cheese placed in the White House from which the public were invited to eat during a reception, while discussing issues of the day with politicians. In 2014, the White House announced that it was to host an online Q&A with Obama administration officials and staff, called a Virtual "Big Block of Cheese day", on January 29, 2014. The event was promoted with a video featuring stars from The West Wing. The event was repeated on January 21, 2015, again promoted by stars from the show. On April 29, 2016, Allison Janney appeared in character as C.J. Cregg during a White House press briefing.
Despite its commercial and critical success, The West Wing has also received criticism from the left. Jewish Journal columnist Naomi Pfefferman once referred to The West Wing as "The Left Wing" because of its portrayal of an ideal liberal administration, and the moniker has also been used by Republican critics of the show. Chris Lehmann, former deputy editor and regular reviewer for The Washington Post's Book World section, characterized the show as a revisionist look at the Clinton presidency. Other critics have taken issue with the portrayal of conservatives on the show, criticizing The West Wing for a form of liberal elitism, as writer Luke Savage remarked, "there is a general tenor to The West Wing universe that cannot be called anything other than smug." The hosts of socialist podcast Chapo Trap House are frequent critics of Sorkin and have called The West Wing an "expression of the patronizing self-entitlement of liberals."
On the other hand, some Republicans have admired the show since its inception, even before the departure of Sorkin and the show's resulting shift toward the center. In his 2001 article "Real Liberals versus The West Wing," Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote, ″Although his administration is reliably liberal, President Bartlet possesses virtues even a conservative could admire. He obeys the Constitution and the law. He is devoted to his wife and daughters. Being unfaithful to his wife would never cross his mind. He is no wimp when it comes to foreign policy—no quid pro quo for him."
Journalist Matthew Miller wrote, "although the show indeed has a liberal bias on issues, it presents a truer, more human picture of the people behind the headlines than most of today's Washington journalists."
In its first season, The West Wing attracted critical attention in the television community with a record nine Emmy wins. The show has been praised for its high production values and repeatedly recognized for its cinematic achievements. The series had a budget of $2.7 million per episode. The series has also been praised for Sorkin's rapid-fire and witty scripts.
The West Wing is noted for developing the "walk-and-talk"—long Steadicam tracking shots showing characters walking down hallways while involved in long conversations. In a typical "walk-and-talk" shot, the camera leads two characters down a hallway as they speak to each other. One of these characters generally breaks off and the remaining character is then joined by another character, who initiates another conversation as they continue walking. These "walk-and-talks" create a dynamic feel for what would otherwise be long expository dialogue, and have become a staple for dialogue-intensive television show scenes.
In its first season, The West Wing garnered nine Emmys, a record for most won by a series in its first season. In addition, the series received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003, tying Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Mad Men and Game of Thrones for most won in this category. Each of its seven seasons earned a nomination for the award. With its 26 total awards, The West Wing tied with Hill Street Blues as the drama with the most Emmy wins until Game of Thrones broke the record for most wins in 2016, with 38 total awards.
The series shares the Emmy Award record for most acting nominations by regular cast members (excluding the guest performer category) for a single series in one year. (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and Game of Thrones also hold that record). For the 2001–2002 season, nine cast members were nominated for Emmys. Allison Janney, John Spencer and Stockard Channing each won an Emmy (for Lead Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress respectively). The others nominated were Martin Sheen (for Lead Actor), Richard Schiff, Dulé Hill and Bradley Whitford (for Supporting Actor), and Janel Moloney and Mary-Louise Parker (for Supporting Actress). In addition, that same year Mark Harmon, Tim Matheson and Ron Silver were each nominated in the Guest Actor category (although none won the award). This gave the series an Emmy Award record for most acting nominations overall (including guest performer category) in a single year, with 12 acting nominations. Twenty individual Emmys were awarded to writers, actors, and crew members. Allison Janney is the record holder for most wins by a cast member, with a total of four Emmys. The West Wing won at least one Emmy in each of its seasons except the sixth.
In addition to its Emmys, the show won two Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, in 2000 and 2001, Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. Martin Sheen was the only cast member to win a Golden Globe Award, and he and Allison Janney were the only cast members to win SAG Awards. In both 1999 and 2000, The West Wing was awarded the Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.
The following table summarizes award wins by cast members:
Many cast members were Emmy-nominated for their work on The West Wing but did not win, including Martin Sheen—who was nominated for six of the seven seasons of the series without receiving the award—as well as Janel Moloney, who was nominated twice, and Dulé Hill, Rob Lowe, and Mary-Louise Parker, who were all nominated once. Matthew Perry, Oliver Platt, Ron Silver, Tim Matheson, and Mark Harmon also received Emmy nominations for guest starring on the show.
Thomas Schlamme won two Emmys for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (in 2000 and 2001), and Christopher Misiano won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series in 2003. The West Wing's only Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series was in its first season, when Rick Cleveland and Aaron Sorkin shared the award for "In Excelsis Deo".
W. G. Snuffy Walden received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music in 2000 for "The West Wing Opening Theme".
"The West Wing Documentary Special" won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Program in 2002, with the award shared by Aaron Sorkin, Tommy Schlamme, documentarian Bill Couturie, show writers Eli Attie and Felicia Willson, and others.
Readers of TV Guide voted the cast of The West Wing their Best Drama cast of all time, receiving 37% of the votes, beating Lost, which received 23%.
A Wall Street Journal poll in 2016 named Martin Sheen's Josiah Bartlet as the second greatest fictional president, behind Harrison Ford's President James Marshall in Air Force One.
The West Wing often featured extensive discussion of current or recent political issues. After the real-world election of Republican President George W. Bush in 2000, many wondered whether the liberal show could retain its relevance and topicality. However, by exploring many of the same issues facing the Bush administration from a Democratic point of view, the show continued to appeal to a broad audience of both Democrats and Republicans.
In the second-season episode "The Midterms", President Bartlet admonishes fictional radio host Dr. Jenna Jacobs for her views regarding homosexuality at a private gathering at the White House. Dr. Jacobs is a caricature of radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who strongly disapproves of homosexuality. Many of the President's biblical references in his comments to Dr. Jacobs appear to have come from an open letter to Dr. Schlessinger, circulated online in early May 2000.
The Bartlet administration experiences a scandal during the second and third seasons that has been compared to the Monica Lewinsky affair. President Bartlet has known that he has relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) since 1992. The scandal centers around President Bartlet's nondisclosure of his illness to the electorate during the election. He is investigated by an opposition Congress for defrauding the public and eventually accepts Congressional censure. Multiple sclerosis advocacy groups praised the show for its accurate portrayal of the symptoms of MS and stressing that it is not fatal. The National MS Society commented:
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the start of the third season was postponed for a week, as were most American television premieres that year. A script for a special episode was quickly written and began filming on September 21. The episode "Isaac and Ishmael" aired on October 3 and addresses the sobering reality of terrorism in America and the wider world, albeit with no specific reference to September 11. While "Isaac and Ishmael" received mixed critical reviews, it illustrated the show's flexibility in addressing current events. The cast of the show state during the opening of the episode that it is not part of The West Wing continuity.
While the September 11 attacks are not referred to in The West Wing continuity, the country enters into a variation of the War on Terrorism. Al Qaeda, mentioned briefly by Nancy McNally in the beginning of Season 2, plays no role in the longer terrorism story arcs of Seasons 3, 4 and 5. It is only mentioned again in Seasons 6 and 7. The stand-in used instead is the fictional Bahji terror group who first plots to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge. In response, the President orders the assassination of foreign leader Abdul ibn Shareef, one of Bahji's primary backers. This storyline has similarities to the real-world U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as well as U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, as it brings the Middle East to the forefront of U.S. foreign relations and elevates terrorism as a serious threat.
In the middle of the fourth season, Bartlet's White House is confronted with genocide in the fictional African country of Equatorial Kundu, which was compared to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The result is new foreign policy doctrine for the Bartlet Administration and military intervention to stop the violence, which come after much hesitation and reluctance to call the conflict a genocide. In reality, the Clinton Administration did not intervene in Rwanda.
In the sixth and seventh seasons, The West Wing explores a leak of top-secret information by a senior staffer at the White House. This leak has been compared to events surrounding the Valerie Plame affair. In the storyline, the International Space Station is damaged and can no longer produce oxygen for the astronauts to breathe. With no other methods of rescue available, the President is reminded of the existence of a top-secret military space shuttle. Following the President's inaction, the shuttle story is leaked to a White House reporter, Greg Brock (analogous to Judith Miller), who prints the story in The New York Times. Brock will not reveal his source and goes to jail for failing to do so, as did Miller. In order to stop the investigation, in which authorities suspect Chief of Staff C.J. Cregg, Toby Ziegler admits to leaking the information, and the President is forced to dismiss him. In comparison, the Plame affair resulted in the arrest and conviction of "Scooter" Libby, the Vice President's chief of staff. However, Libby was convicted of perjury in testimony to a grand jury. No one was convicted for "blowing the cover" of Plame. (Richard Armitage, an official in the Bush State Department, acknowledged leaking information about Plame to reporters but was never charged with a crime.) Libby's two and a half-year prison sentence was later commuted by President Bush, though the other facet of his sentence ($250,000 fine) stood until his 2018 pardon by President Donald Trump and was duly paid. In the series finale, President Bartlet, as his last official act, pardons Ziegler.
Other issues explored in The West Wing include:
All contemporary domestic government officials in The West Wing universe are fictional. President Bartlet has made three appointments to the fictional Supreme Court and maintains a full cabinet, although not all names and terms of the members are revealed. Some cabinet members, such as the Secretary of Defense, appear more often than others. Many other government officials, such as mayors, governors, judges, representatives, and senators, are mentioned and seen as well.
Fictional locations inside the United States are created to loosely represent certain places:
San Andreo is a fictional California city. It is located near San Diego, has a population of 42,000 and is the location of the San Andreo Nuclear Generating Station. The fictional station was based on the real life San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego County.
A near meltdown at the nuclear plant becomes the focus of an October surprise for Republican nominee Senator Arnold Vinick during the 2006 presidential election, due to Vinick's strong pro-nuclear stance and revelations of his active lobbying for the construction of the plant. This is seen to be a key factor in Vinick's narrow defeat in the election by Democratic nominee Congressman Matt Santos.
Hartsfield's Landing is a fictional town in New Hampshire. It is stated to be a very small community of only 63 people, of whom 42 are registered voters, that votes at one minute past midnight on the day of the New Hampshire primary, hours before the rest of the state, and has accurately predicted the winner of every presidential election since William Howard Taft in 1908. It is based on three real-life New Hampshire communities, one of which is Hart's Location, which indeed vote before the rest of the state during the primaries.
Kennison State is a fictional university in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, used as the setting of a bombing in the beginning of the fourth season.
While several real-world leaders exist in the show's universe, most foreign countries depicted or referred to on the show have fictional rulers. Real people mentioned in The West Wing include Muammar Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, Queen Elizabeth II, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Carl XVI Gustaf, Thabo Mbeki and Osama bin Laden.
Entire countries are invented as composite pictures that epitomize many of the problems that plague real nations in certain areas of the world:
The West Wing universe diverges from history after Richard Nixon's presidency, although there is occasional overlap; for instance, in the second episode of the series' second season "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" Toby Ziegler speaks to a Secret Service agent outside a building named for Ronald Reagan, although this may have just been a production oversight. Fictional Presidents who are shown to have served between Nixon and Bartlet include one-term Democrat D. Wire Newman (James Cromwell) and two-term Republican Owen Lassiter.
Leo McGarry is mentioned as being Labor Secretary in the administration that was in office in 1993 and 1995. In the first season, an outgoing Supreme Court Justice tells Jed Bartlet that he had been wanting to retire for five years, but waited "for a Democrat" because he did not want a Republican President to replace him with a conservative justice (the Justice then tells President Bartlet, snidely, "Instead, I got you."). The season four episode "Debate Camp" features a flashback to the days just before Bartlet's inauguration, as Donna Moss meets with her Republican predecessor, Jeff Johnson. In season six Leo says that the Republicans have been "out of power for eight years", and Republicans at their convention say "eight (years) is enough".
The passage of time on the show relative to that of the real world is somewhat ambiguous when marked by events of shorter duration (such as votes and campaigns). Sorkin noted in a DVD commentary track for the second-season episode "18th and Potomac" that he tried to avoid tying The West Wing to a specific period of time. Despite this, real years are occasionally mentioned, usually in the context of elections and President Bartlet's two-term administration.
The show's presidential elections are held in 2002 and 2006, which are the years of the midterm elections in reality (these dates come from the fact that in the season 2 episode "17 People", Toby mentions 2002 as the year of the President's reelection campaign). The election timeline in The West Wing matches up with that of the real world until early in the sixth season, when it appears that a year is lost. For example, the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary, which would normally fall in January 2006, appears in an episode airing in January 2005.
In an interview, John Wells stated that the series began one and a half years into Bartlet's first term and that the election to replace Bartlet was being held at the correct time. However, the season 1 episode "He Shall from Time to Time" shows the preparations for Bartlet's first regular State of the Union address, which would occur one year into his presidency. In the Season 1 episode "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet", Josh Lyman asks Toby Ziegler, "Our second year isn't going much better than our first year, is it?"
In the season 5 episode "Access", it is mentioned that the Casey Creek crisis occurred during Bartlet's first term and got his presidency off to a calamitous start, and network footage of the crisis carries the date of November 2001.
Bartlet's first campaign for President is never significantly explored in the series. Bartlet is stated to have won the election with 48% of the popular vote, 48 million votes, and a 303–235 margin in the Electoral College. Of three debates between Bartlet and his Republican opponent, it is mentioned that Bartlet won the third and final debate, held eight days before election day in St. Louis, Missouri. Josh Lyman says that in the days prior to the election "Bartlet punched through a few walls" as the result seemed too close to call, before the result broke his way. Leo McGarry says the same thing in "Bartlet for America" when he says, "It was eight days to go, and we were too close to call".
The campaign for the Democratic nomination is extensively addressed. In the episodes "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part I", "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II" and "Bartlet for America", flashbacks are used to show Bartlet defeating Texas Senator John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) and Washington Senator William Wiley for the Democratic nomination and later choosing Hoynes as his running mate. The flashbacks also show Leo McGarry persuading Bartlet, then Governor of New Hampshire, to run for President.
The West Wing's 2002 presidential election pits Bartlet and Vice President John Hoynes against Florida Governor Robert Ritchie (James Brolin) and his running mate, Jeff Heston. Bartlet faces no known opposition for renomination, though Minnesota Democratic Senator Howard Stackhouse launches a brief independent campaign for the presidency. Ritchie, not originally expected to contend for the nomination, emerges from a field of seven other Republican candidates by appealing to the party's conservative base with simple, "homey" sound bites.
Bartlet's staff contemplates replacing Vice President John Hoynes on the ticket with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Percy Fitzwallace (John Amos), among others. After it is clear that Ritchie will be the Republican nominee, Bartlet dismisses the idea, declaring that he wants Hoynes in the number two spot because of "four words," which he writes down and hands to Hoynes and McGarry to read: "Because I could die."
Throughout the season it is anticipated that the race will be close, but a stellar performance by Bartlet in the sole debate between the candidates helps give Bartlet a landslide victory in both the popular and electoral vote.
A speed-up in The West Wing's timeline, in part due to the expiration of many cast members' contracts and a desire to continue the program with lower production costs, resulted in the omission of the 2004 midterm elections and an election during the seventh season. The sixth season extensively details the Democratic and Republican primaries. The seventh season covers the lead-up to the general election, the election, and the transition to a new administration. The timeline slows down to concentrate on the general election race. The election, normally held in November, takes place across two episodes originally broadcast on April 2 and 9, 2006.
Congressman Matt Santos (D-TX) (Jimmy Smits) is nominated on the fourth ballot at the Democratic National Convention, during the sixth-season finale. Santos, having planned to leave Congress before being recruited to run for the presidency by Josh Lyman, polls in the low single digits in the Iowa caucus. He is virtually out of the running in the New Hampshire primary before a last-ditch live television commercial vaults him to a third-place finish with 19% of the vote. Josh Lyman, Santos's campaign manager, convinces Leo McGarry to become Santos's running mate.
Senator Arnold Vinick (R-CA) (Alan Alda) secures the Republican nomination, defeating Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman) and the Reverend Don Butler (Don S. Davis), among others. Initially, Vinick wants Butler to become his running mate. However, Butler does not want to be considered because of Vinick's stance on abortion. Instead, West Virginia Governor Ray Sullivan (Brett Cullen) is chosen as Vinick's running mate. Vinick is portrayed throughout the sixth season as virtually unbeatable because of his popularity in California, a typically Democratic state, his moderate views, and his wide crossover appeal. Vinick, however, faces difficulty with the anti-abortion members of his party as an abortion rights candidate, and criticism for his support of nuclear power following a serious accident at a Californian nuclear power station.
On the evening of the election, Leo McGarry suffers a massive heart attack and is pronounced dead at the hospital, with the polls still open on the West Coast. The Santos campaign releases the information immediately, while Arnold Vinick refuses to use Leo's death as a "stepstool" to the presidency. Santos emerges as the winner in his home state of Texas, while Vinick wins his home state of California. The election comes down to Nevada, where both candidates need a victory to secure the presidency. Vinick tells his staff repeatedly that he will not allow his campaign to demand a recount of the votes if Santos is declared the winner. Josh Lyman gives Santos the same advice, although the Santos campaign sends a team of lawyers down to Nevada. Santos is pronounced the winner of the election, having won Nevada by 30,000 votes, with an electoral vote margin of 272–266.
According to executive producer Lawrence O'Donnell, Jr., the writers originally intended for Vinick to win the election. However, the death of Spencer forced him and his colleagues to consider the emotional strain that would result from having Santos lose both his running mate and the election. It was eventually decided by John Wells that the last episodes would be rescripted. Other statements from John Wells, however, have contradicted O'Donnell's claims about a previously planned Vinick victory. The script showing Santos winning was written long before the death of John Spencer. In 2008 O'Donnell stated to camera, "We actually planned at the outset for Jimmy Smits to win, that was our .. just .. plan of how this was all going to work, but the Vinick character came on so strong in the show, and was so effective, it became a real contest ... and it became a real contest in the West Wing writer's room."
Similarities between the fictional 2006 election and the real-life 2008 U.S. presidential election have been noted in the media:
According to David Remnick's biography of Obama, The Bridge, when writer and former White House aide Eli Attie was tasked with fleshing out the first major Santos storylines, he looked to then-U.S. Senator Obama as a model. Attie called David Axelrod, with whom he had worked in politics, "and grilled him about Obama." While Attie says that he "drew inspiration from [Obama] in drawing [the Santos] character," actor Jimmy Smits also says that Obama "was one of the people that I looked to draw upon" for his portrayal of the character. Writer and producer Lawrence O'Donnell says that he partly modeled Vinick after McCain. Obama's former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is said to be the basis of the Josh Lyman character, who becomes Santos's Chief of Staff. However, O'Donnell denied this claim.
As the series sunsets with Bartlet's final year in office, little is revealed about Matt Santos's presidency, with the last few episodes mainly focusing on the Santos team's transition into the White House. Santos chooses Josh Lyman as Chief of Staff, who in turn calls on former colleague Sam Seaborn to be Deputy Chief of Staff. In need of experienced cabinet members, Santos taps Arnold Vinick as Secretary of State, believing the senior statesman to be one of the best strategists available and respected by foreign leaders. Santos eventually decides on Eric Baker, the Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania and at one point the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, as his choice for Vice President, and submits his name to Congress under the terms of the 25th Amendment. While the show ends before he can be confirmed, it is implied he may face little opposition from Republicans due to the backing of Secretary of State Vinick.
President Bartlet's final act as President of the United States is pardoning Toby Ziegler, who had violated federal law by leaking classified information about a military space shuttle. The series ends with Bartlet returning to New Hampshire. Having said his goodbyes to his closest staff, former President Bartlet tells President Santos, "Make me proud, Mr. President," to which Santos responds, "I'll do my best, Mr. President."
The series is available on DVD, with a complete series set released in 2006. Seasons 1 is in the original 4:3 format while Season 2 onward are presented as anamorphic widescreen.
In 2010 the series was released in high-definition for the first time on streaming platforms Amazon Video and iTunes, with the first two seasons remastered in 16:9 to match the aspect ratio and resolution change in the third season.
Several books have been published about The West Wing. One of the first, in 2001, was Paul C. Challe's Inside the West Wing: An Unauthorized Look at Television's Smartest Show. In 2002, Newmarket Press published The West Wing Script Book, which included episode scripts from Aaron Sorkin. Also in 2002, Ian Jackman wrote The West Wing (The Official Companion). Analytical books about the series include Peter Rollins' The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama (2003), The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism by Trevor Parry-Giles and Shawn J. Parry-Giles (2006), The West Wing (TV Milestones Series) by Janet McCabe (2012), and Claire Handscombe's Walk with Us: How the West Wing Changed Our Lives (2016).
In 2010, Twitter accounts for many of the primary characters on The West Wing began to appear, including accounts for President Bartlet, Josh Lyman, Leo McGarry, Matt Santos and Mrs. Landingham. Tweets from the fictional characters have been featured on The Rachel Maddow Show, CNN and questions from the fictional accounts have been answered by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs during a White House Press Conference and from Vice President Joe Biden during a Twitter Town Hall. The success of The West Wing accounts has resulted in several copycats, including accounts from several minor or obscure West Wing characters, including Gail, the fish in C.J.'s office.
In March 2016, The West Wing Weekly podcast hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina began. Each episode of the podcast discusses an episode of The West Wing and has featured various cast and crew members from the series.
On March 25, 2019, screenwriters Josh Olson (Oscar-nominated for A History of Violence) and Dave Anthony launched The West Wing Thing, in which the hosts "watch and then discuss" an episode of the series, analyzing and critiquing the show itself as well as its relationship to real-life American politics, both at the time it originally aired and in the present day.
A major fan convention, "West Wing Weekend" took place in September 28–30, 2018, at the Marriott Hotel in Bethesda, Maryland. The convention featured guest appearances from some members of the series' cast, as well as a number of panels, fan-based programming, and special events. A Kickstarter campaign for the convention was started on January 4, 2018, to raise $10,000, and it was fully funded within two days.
Many venues, including Funny or Die, Mad TV, and the Late Night with Seth Meyers have parodied the walk-and-talk cliche of the show, including the "ping-pong" dialogue, in which one character would speak barely a word before the other said another, and then repeated back and forth.
During the 2012 campaign season, most of the cast—including Mary McCormack in her role as Deputy National Security Adviser Kate Harper—appeared in a humorous emulation of a PSA encouraging people to look for the portion of the ballot for nonpartisan positions. The video spotlights and promotes Bridget Mary McCormack as an example of a nonpartisan candidate; McCormack was running for the Michigan Supreme Court at the time. She is described in the spot as the sister of Mary McCormack (which she is); none of the characters are able to identify this person, including Kate Harper. The video was paid for by McCormack's campaign.
In August 2020, it was announced that cast members Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Dulé Hill, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney would reprise their roles for a stage version of the season 3 episode "Hartsfield's Landing", intended to raise awareness and support for When We All Vote, a nonprofit organization founded to increase participation in United States elections by Michelle Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others. Production began in early October 2020 at Los Angeles' Orpheum Theatre and was broadcast on October 15 on HBO Max. On October 27, 2020, HBO Max made the special viewable for free to non-subscribers until the end of 2020.
The role of Leo McGarry was performed by Sterling K. Brown; actor John Spencer died in 2005. Emily Procter read the stage directions, a choice Ben Travers from IndieWire found "odd", but speculated her background as a guest actress playing a Republican (Ainsley Hayes) could be a factor. A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote includes special material written by Aaron Sorkin and Eli Attie and was directed by Thomas Schlamme, and act breaks featured guest appearances from When We All Vote co-founders Obama and Miranda, plus former president Bill Clinton and actors Samuel L. Jackson, Marlee Matlin, and Elisabeth Moss. Music was performed by West Wing composer W. G. Snuffy Walden and The Avett Brothers.
Reception was positive with CNN's Brian Lowry characterizing the special to "approximate the experience of watching a stage play, only with a best-seat-in-the-house view," including "shooting the performers from behind and revealing the rows and rows of empty seats," what Lowry considered "a poignant reminder of what's been lost on the theatrical front since the pandemic began." Patrick Gomez of The A.V. Club writing "the special always stays on the right side of being a Very Special Episode" and giving it an A- grade. Ben Travers from IndieWire considers "[as] a reimagining of a strong television episode, the new version of "Hartsfield's Landing" plays out beautifully." Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter's summary read "[a] solid recreation of a solid episode for a solid cause".